Pharm Exec at 40 (1997-1999)

Julian Upton

Julian Upton is Pharmaceutical Executive’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-06-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 6

Looking Back at 1997–1999.

Hindsight puts one of the much-discussed fears of 1997–99, the Millennium Bug, in a humorous if not surreal light, but a good number of people had serious concerns that computers would be unable to process the two-digit 00 date when the year 2000 rolled around. Organizations spent much time and money preparing their systems for this potentially cataclysmic event. On the eve of “Year Zero,” Dec. 31, 1999, there were even reports that a few excitable individuals were packing up their pots and pans and running for the hills. Two days later, everyone wondered what all the fuss had been about.

A more palpably horrific event marred 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident in Paris in August. Even a quarter of a century later, repercussions are being felt in the UK about the media’s culpability in the lead-up to the tragedy. In the US, President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 over allegedly lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Only the second president to face such a trial in 200 years, Clinton survived to see another day in office, but not before creating widespread discussion about what might actually be covered by the term “sexual relations.”

In movies, James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic towered over its contemporaries; the film cost an unprecedented $200 million but made well over a billion dollars and matched Ben-Hur’s record haul of 11 wins on Oscar night. The new taste for disaster movies was fed by the asteroid-themed Armageddon and Deep Impact the following year. 1999 saw the much anticipated return of the Star Wars saga. But while The Phantom Menace appealed strongly to 10-year-old boys, it was left to The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, American Beauty, and Toy Story 2 to wow the public and critics alike.

In music, in 1997, Elton John paid tribute to Princess Diana with “Candle in the Wind,” originally written in honor of Marilyn Monroe but re-worked as an elegy for his friend. Titanic’s theme, “My Heart Will Go On,” sung by Celine Dion, dominated the singles chart in 1998, while 1999 saw breakthroughs for Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, and Eminen, and introduced the Anglophone audience to Ricky Martin.

In sports, Mike Tyson was disqualified from his WBA fight in June 1997 after biting off part of opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear. Soccer’s David Beckham became, for a short time, the most hated man at home when he was sent off during the England vs. Argentina match at the 1998 FIFA World Cup. The depleted England side lost the game and were kicked out of the competition. (Host country France would later beat Brazil to win the tournament.) In 1999, two US players triumphed at Wimbledon; it was Pete Sampras’ sixth win but Lindsay Davenport’s one and only Wimbledon victory. The era of Venus and Serena Williams was about to begin.

The pharma landscape

On the pharma-science side, 1997 began with the announcement that researchers at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, together with the biotech PPL Therapeutics, had successfully cloned the first mammal from an adult somatic cell, using nuclear transfer. Dolly the Sheep became an instant worldwide celebrity, but remained oblivious to the heated debates around the ethics of cloning that her arrival would trigger.

In deals, Pharmacia & Upjohn merged with Monsanto and Swedish company Astra joined forces with the UK-based Zeneca Group to form AstraZeneca (AZ), one of the largest-ever European mergers at the time. “I am convinced that we will see considerable growth in the years ahead,” said Percy Barnevik, AZ’s nominated chairman.

Seeing immediate growth was Pfizer, whose Viagra became (in March 1998) the first pill approved by FDA to treat erectile dysfunction in the US. Going on sale later that year, Viagra was an instant blockbuster, and one of the few drugs to impact the culture as quickly as it did the healthcare industry. It gave a huge boost to Pfizer’s stock, which rose by nearly 70%, and to “sexual relations” everywhere.

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com.

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